Category: Fiction/Fantasy/Time Travel – Paperback: 650 pages – Publisher: New English Library – Source: Personal Collection re-read
First Published: 1992
I first read Doomsday Book in about 1994 when my local library bought a hardback copy and the artwork of the cover sucked me straight in. (Isn’t it a gorgeous overlay of modern and medieval landscapes?) I picked it up for a re-read recently because although it’s a bit of a tear-jerker I fancied reading something I already knew.
This is the story of Kivrin, a history student at Oxford University in 2054, being given the opportunity to travel back in time to the 14th century to enhance her medieval studies. Of course the whole 14th century should be off-limits – it’s been rated 10/10 for danger because of disease, warfare, famine and brutal laws around every corner – but the Department Head has gone on holiday and his pushy, glory-seeking deputy has changed the rating and is racing to get Kivrin ‘dropped’ into the past before the Head finds out.
Unfortunately due to a crisis in her own times Kivrin’s drop goes wrong and instead of going to the relatively safe 1320s she finds herself in 1348 in a village about to be hit by the Black Death…
I think what keeps this book on my shelves and prompts the occasional re-reads is the same thing that got this into the SF Masterworks series: it’s a novel in need of a lot of editing but the second half is gloriously rich.
As the book opens, Kivrin’s ‘drop’ is about to begin and you get flashbacks of her training – learning Middle English, making her outfit, choosing a suitable name, getting an immune system booster – along with a good view of the politics surrounding her drop. Her tutor, Professor Dunworthy, is shocked she’s going at all but horrified at the rushed circumstances and corners that are being cut. Meanwhile the temporary Department Head, Gilchrist, who is cutting all those corners and rushing the drop is unbearably smug and sure everything will be fine because he thinks the dangers of the 14th century have been grossly exaggerated.
It’s a great set-up for the novel and pretty good at sucking you in. Willis’ version of time travel isn’t at all flashy, it’s more a combination of starry-eyed historians knuckling down to pragmatic researching opportunities, which shifts your attention back to the personal drama and keeps the tension building. Which you need to remember when confronted with the problematic middle section of the book.
Ah yes, Willis is an author with an ongoing issue.
I almost never suggest skim-reading but you have to with Willis. All her novels suffer from repetition and bloat. It honestly baffles me that such an inventive and thoughtful writer has never been blessed with a red pen wielding editor but there it is. Between the drop going wrong up to the moment when Kivrin realises she is in 1348 rather than 1320 you need to selectively read. The chapters alternate between Kivrin’s experiences in the 14th century and chapters set in 2054 where Professor Dunworthy is trying to discover if Kivrin’s drop went okay and the start of a flu pandemic is causing chaos and panic. Concentrate on Kivrin’s chapters and skim-read the ones set in 2054.
The 2054-set chapters in the middle of the book can easily be summarised as pages and pages of people trying to place calls that never get through, leaving messages for people who don’t reply, forgetting to ask key questions and talking at cross purposes. This is something Willis always does and she’s making a decent point about how poor communication becomes a danger in its own right but it’s heavy-handed and goes on too long. The chapters set in the 14th century are much better written though, have a more detailed plot and are far more interesting as Kivrin tries to explore the village she’s arrived in, gets to grips with social customs and begins to bond with the family that take her in.
Trust me, it’s worth persevering to get to the final 200 pages where suddenly, whoosh, you get sucked back in as Kivrin’s story takes over and the first case of bubonic plague is discovered in the village.
The horrors of Kivrin being immune herself but powerless to save those she has been a guest of and become attached to are brilliantly described and, to my mind, it’s Willis’ strongest writing in any of her novels. Willis always shines when she focuses on how people cope in crises despite all their selfish, petty concerns – surviving night after night of putting out fires in the Blitz or working to save people in a pandemic – but here her love and faith in humanity blazes. There will always be annoying, selfish, difficult people but there will always be nurses, heroes and those who don’t quit too.
Kivrin nursing those she knows already died 600 years ago (regardless of whether they died from plague) could tip into melodrama or farce but it never does. Instead you get images of her trying to find more cloth for bandages in a world where people have only the clothes they stand up in unless they’re rich, using the village church’s limited supply of communion wine to sterilise wounds and trying to guess who will die based on the mortality percentages estimated in history textbooks. As the death toll rises, she realises that it doesn’t matter whether the textbook percentages were right because every single person who died was “frightened and brave and irreplaceable”.
Despite its flawed editing Doomsday Book‘s imagery is so powerful that it’s stayed with me for nearly 20 years when many, many other books haven’t and I kept my copy even when I purged two thirds of my book collection in 2009. With tighter editing this would be a huge classic by now rather than a ‘cult favourite’ but honestly, it deserved to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards and I’m recommending it anyway. Stories as unforgettably vivid and moving as this are rare indeed.
Buy the book: Book Depository